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Christine Jordan Sexton - February 10, 2022

'This bill protects those who have tried to do the right thing and have put themselves in harm's way to provide care.'

Health care providers could continue to enjoy protections from COVID-19 liability lawsuits until June 1, 2023, after the House passed SB 7014 by an 87-31 vote Thursday.

The bill will head to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law.

Extending the lawsuit protections was one of the top priorities for health care organizations and business groups that favor restrictions on litigation.

The Florida Health Care Association (FHCA), which represents the state’s for-profit nursing home industry, and other health care providers worried that the current protections in law expire March 29.

“We appreciate that our lawmakers recognize the importance of being protected while working during this difficult time. COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on nursing centers and our heroic caregivers, as pandemic burnout has worsened an already-challenged workforce,” FHCA CEO Emmett Reed said in a prepared statement. “These liability protections reinforce support from our Legislature and ensure that Florida’s long-term care centers have the resources needed to continue providing high-quality care to Florida’s most vulnerable population.”

Jacksonville lawyer and health care lobbyist Christopher Nuland said the protections continue to be necessary.

“This bill protects those who have tried to do the right thing and have put themselves in harm’s way to provide care,” said Nuland, who represents the Florida Chapter of the American College of Surgeons and other physician specialty groups.

Florida Chamber of Commerce Senior Policy Director Carolyn Johnson told Florida Politics the bill was a “huge priority” for the association.

“Doctors, nurses and medical providers have been working around the clock and this extension is necessary as the pandemic has not yet ended,” Johnson said.

The extended lawsuit protections are one of the few tort-related bills filed in the 2022 Session that lawmakers appear willing to embrace.

At a press conference last week, Tom Gaitens, executive director of the Florida chapter of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said his association was “hitting singles right now. The reality is we need home runs; they may not come this Session.”

The Legislature in 2021 passed lawsuit protections from COVID-19 related lawsuits for general businesses as well as health care providers. The protections for nonhealth care providers do not expire. The law requires COVID-19 lawsuits to be filed within one year after the cause of action accrues or by March 29, 2021.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls insisted that the protections for health care providers be time limited, though.

Sprowls, who is term-limited out of office, said he is not sure whether the protections will need to be extended beyond 2023.

“Part of the idea of setting it a year out was because we acknowledged this shouldn’t be the state of the law forever,” Sprowls told reporters Thursday. “When we set that date a year ago, we didn’t know the answer. Which is why we set it there, so we could still be here and have an opportunity to evaluate it. … What the Legislature will do a year from now will depend probably on the facts at the time.”

Meanwhile, Florida Justice Reform Institute President William Large said lawmakers should be “commended” for quickly passing SB 7014.

“The Legislature realized there was a need to extend last year’s protections, and their quick work will continue to provide relief for our heroes in the health care industry,” said Large, whose association supports lawsuit limitations.